In final round of appeals, the economy dominates

By Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny

New York Times News Service

SUNRISE, Fla. — As he races across the country in the climax of a marathon campaign, Sen. Barack Obama has honed a final message calling on America to "turn the page" on an era of "greed and irresponsibility," tapping into populist sentiment while reassuring voters that he is no radical.

His "time for change" closing argument in this moment of national anxiety focuses heavily on the economic issues that are at the core of voter concerns right now, skipping quickly past the questions of war and peace that animated his campaign when it started nearly two years ago.

"We’ve tried it John McCain’s way, we’ve tried it George Bush’s way, and it hasn’t worked," Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, told thousands of supporters on Wednesday in Raleigh, N.C., his first stop of the day. "That’s why I’m running for president. Now, deep down, John McCain knows his economic theories don’t work. That’s why his campaign says, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ That’s why I keep on talking about the economy."


Obama added: "Because (McCain) knows his economic theories don’t work, he’s been spending these last few days calling me every name in the book. Lately, he’s called me a socialist for wanting to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans so we can finally give tax relief to the middle class. By the end of the week, he’ll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten."

Republican strongholds

As he devotes the waning days to Republican strongholds in the South and West, Obama arranged for a show of party unity by inviting former President Bill Clinton to appear with him at a late-night rally in Orlando on Wednesday, the first time the two have campaigned alone together. The visual cue was a symbolic passing of the torch from the last Democratic president to the man who hopes to be the next one.

The closing Obama speech is a cautious one, calibrated to cement the inroads he has made with voters whose comfort level with him has grown. Even as he sums up the case for his candidacy, Obama is seeking to defuse any remaining uncertainty about electing a largely untested first-term senator and dispel his critics’ depiction of him as an inexperienced, unproven leader who would raise taxes, redistribute wealth and go soft on terrorists.

Although Obama still reaches for lofty oratory in these three-a-day rallies, he also spends time explaining his tax policies in detail to rebut McCain. While he will raise taxes on the richest Americans, he says that any family earning less than $250,000 a year would not pay a dime more under his plan and that 95 percent of Americans would actually pay less.

To reinforce the point, he often asks for a show of hands of those who make less than $250,000, which usually means nearly everyone in the crowd. He sometimes goes on, as he did on Tuesday in Harrisonburg, Va., to note that it includes "98 percent of small businesses and 99.9 percent of plumbers," a reference to McCain’s oft-expressed concern for the taxes of a man he has dubbed Joe the Plumber.

National unity theme

Obama returns regularly to the themes of unity that first brought him to prominence in his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. But as he tells audiences that it is time to "come together as one nation" again, he makes clear that togetherness does not necessarily extend to those he casts as the villains in a time of turmoil — greedy Wall Street bankers, Washington lobbyists, billionaires, unscrupulous mortgage lenders and, foremost in his rendering, their handmaidens, Bush and McCain.


Remember middle class

"For eight years, we’ve seen Washington take care of the extremely well-off and the extremely well-connected, and now my opponent’s making the same arguments to justify the same old policies that have been a complete failure for the middle class," Obama said. "I mean the arguments he’s making now are the same arguments that George Bush makes — all these years."

Toward the end of his pitch to voters, Obama chides Bush for not calling on Americans to sacrifice after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Even after the greatest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, all we were asked to do by our president was to go shopping," he said.

Yet his message demands little specific sacrifice of Americans either, except the thin slice of those who make more than $250,000. Instead, he promises to give them more: lower taxes, lower health care premiums, more jobs, more fuel-efficient cars, better schools, higher teacher salaries, foreclosure assistance, affordable college tuition. The only detailed reference he makes to paying for all of this at a time of record budget deficits is his promise "to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq."

"I know that my opponent is worried about losing an election, but I’m worried about Americans who are losing their homes, and losing their jobs, and losing their life savings," Obama said. "I’m worried about the middle class. And I won’t just fight for your vote in the final days of the election, I will fight for you every single day that I’m in the White House."

The reference to spending in Iraq constitutes almost everything he says about the two wars America is fighting.

In Obama’s telling, this is an election about America and whether it can pick itself up after so much tumult.

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